Oversell of Abay River

The initial subject for my undergraduate dissertation paper was a weir. A weir is essentially a smaller dam, but used for less biblical purposes, like diverting the flow of rivers or streams, or just regulating them. A weir is a dam, if a dam did not have such high and lofty ideals. But even weirs, which are so modest, are very hard to pin down into a coherent graduating paper that is to be completed within a measly 60 days. We had to abandon the topic, for the structural designs of a pitiful building.

A dam is far more complicated than a weir, especially the bigger ones, which are expected to cope with large rivers. They take years to build, but also to design and plan in the first place. They require extensive site exploration to make sure the land could carry such enormous water weight. They demand a large number of man power, and temporary housing has to be constructed for personnel. To move around equipment and materials, roads also have to be built. All of this before the dam even begins building.

There is a dam being built in Ethiopia. I think some of us may have heard of it. I am not trying to tease. Even though we technically live in the digital age, thus the information age, according to a World Bank report done five years ago, over 70pc of Ethiopians still do not get electricity, so nothing should be a forgone conclusion. For the remainder, on the other hand, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a household name, talked and chattered and speculated about more often times than even democracy, morals, freedom and other less significant phenomena.

This is not to say the dam is not grand, quite the opposite. Damming the Blue Nile – which locally goes by Abay – is no trivial task. It is this much sung about river that is most detrimental to the existence of the Nile, without whom will be two thirds the poorer of its water (despite this, Lake Victoria is considered the principal source of the Nile!). Given its geographical setting, the river slopes steeply downward for Sudan, then Egypt (at which point it has become the Nile), then the Mediterranean, with such furious speed, one wonders if it is running away from somebody.

And maybe it really is running away. It is after all washing away nutrient-rich sediments (and for such a resource poor country as ours, sediments are no minor loss). And it is freeloading too. In Sudan, the Blue Nile itself is used for irrigation and hydroelectric purposes. In Egypt, the Nile has been the center of habitation as long as the ancient country has ever existed. The same cannot be said for Ethiopia. The Blue Nile is the much pampered golden boy, leaving off mom’s and dad’s riches way after adolescence. It is about time it starts to contribute to the household.

The Grand Renaissance Dam was commenced six years ago, with much fanfare. The budget is four to five billion dollars. The purpose of the dam is to generate about 6000 MW of electricity, making it one of the largest in the world. The water holding capacity of the dam is a staggering 79 billion cubic meters, which will probably take years to fill up.

For a country economically small, such a large dam is indeed significant. It is not at all surprising that a dam has yet not been built. As far back as Haile Selassie’s reign, there were plans, but in truth, they were just pipe dreams, unrealistic at the moment. Getting the money has been the trickiest issue. International creditors, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, have been reluctant to finance such a project, apparently because Egypt holds major sway (compared to Ethiopia) in such circles.

Fortunately, the government was able to scrap money here and there to get the dam built. In the sixth year of its construction, the project is 56pc completed. It is obviously taking more time than anticipated, but most people are not worried – this dam has been centuries in the making, surely we can wait a couple of years.

Looking in from the outside though, it may seem as if the majority of Ethiopians are not keen on the whole idea. Flicking through some of the state run satellite channels, one may get the idea that there are still those not sold on the idea. The dam is reported about to the hilt, in the best possible light: how grand it is, how advantageous it is, how inconceivable.

And we are all usually left wondering who it is they are trying to persuade. We are all smart enough to recognize that electricity shortages are crippling the economy. And I do not know anyone that feels Egypt should have a say on whether or not we build the dam.

Or are they simply trying to endanger a sense of patriotism, for whatever reasons?

It is a mystery. But one thing is for sure. From the way they are selling this hydroelectric power plant, it will be very disappointing if the country continues to be besieged by power shortages.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a regular contributor to Fortune. He could be reached at christian.tesfaye@yahoo.com

Published on Apr 14,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 884]



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